British socialite whose father, Lord Mountbatten, and son were killed by the IRA

Obituary: Patricia Knatchbull. Born: February 14th, 1924. Died: June 13th, 2017

Patricia Mountbatten and John Knatchbull arriving for their wedding at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire, England, in 1946. Photograph: Eddie Worth/Associated Press

Patricia Mountbatten and John Knatchbull arriving for their wedding at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire, England, in 1946. Photograph: Eddie Worth/Associated Press


Patricia Knatchbull, a grande dame of Britain’s titled elite, whose life embraced a fabled childhood between two world wars and deep personal tragedy after her father and teenage son were killed in a bomb attack at sea, died on Tuesday at her home in England, in Mersham, Kent. Lady Mountbatten, as she was known, was 93.

Her death was confirmed by Paul Beresford-Hill, the director-general of the Mountbatten Institute.

With close ties to Britain’s royal family, Knatchbull – also known as Lady Patricia – belonged to what an official biography called “a dynasty of royal, political and wealthy relations”. She was born without a formal title, the elder daughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s onetime First Sea Lord and its last imperial viceroy in India, and a prominent heiress of the day, Edwina Ashley.

Through her marriage in 1946 to the moviemaker John Knatchbull, the seventh Baron Brabourne, she became Lady Brabourne. She inherited the title Countess Mountbatten of Burma after the mayhem on August 27th, 1979, when the family fishing boat, the Shadow V, was bombed by the Irish Republican Army off the coast of Sligo.

Sligo bombing

Members of the family had been staying in their baronial holiday home, Classiebawn Castle, in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland. During the night, an IRA operative slipped aboard their 30-foot wooden-hulled vessel, moored nearby, and planted a remote-controlled bomb.

The bomb detonated a few hundred yards offshore. Timothy Knatchbull’s 14-year-old identical twin, Nicholas, was killed, as was their grandfather, Lord Mountbatten (79), and a boat hand, Paul Maxwell (15). Patricia Knatchbull’s mother-in-law, the Dowager Baroness Doreen Brabourne (83), died in a hospital the next day.

“My own memory,” Patricia Knatchbull told the Daily Telegraph in 2008, “is of a vision of a ball exploding upwards and then of ‘coming to’ in the sea and wondering if I would be able to reach the surface before I passed out. I have very vague memories, now and again, of floating among the wood and debris, being pulled into a small rubber dinghy before totally losing consciousness for days.”

Her medical treatment included 120 facial stitches, which she later described as “my IRA facelift”.

While in the hospital, she realised that her son Nicholas was absent. “I think Nicky dead,” she wrote on a piece of paper, which she handed to her sister, Pamela Hicks, five years her junior. Hicks confirmed that her son had died.

“I was so overwhelmed by grief for Nicky, who was just on the threshold of his life, that I began to feel guilty that I was not able to grieve for my father, whom I really adored, in the same way,” she said.

Royal cousins

Patricia Edwina Victoria Mountbatten was born in London on February 14th, 1924. In the family tree, she ranked as third cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and first cousin to Prince Philip, who married Elizabeth in 1947. She and her sister were great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

On her father’s side, the family was descended from German aristocracy. The name Battenberg was changed to Mountbatten during the first World War, when anti-German sentiment ran strong.

By later standards, her upbringing seems to have been unconventional.

In a memoir, Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten (2013), her sister described a life of parental absences in the care of nannies and governesses as their mother and father devoted their time to separate lives and separate loves. They belonged to a social circle that inhabited vast mansions and included Queen Mary, King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the American socialite for whom Edward abdicated the British throne.

By the time Knatchbull was nine, her sister wrote, her mother had met the latest in a series of lovers, Lt Col Harold Phillips of the Coldstream Guards – nicknamed Bunny – “who changed her life”. He was six-foot-five and “thrillingly handsome, with perfect posture”, Pamela Hicks wrote.

“He would stay with us for long periods of time, and, to us children, he was just part of everyday life,” she added.

At the same time, the girls’ father had met a “young, extremely attractive, boyish-looking girl with cropped hair and a little snub nose – a French ‘gamine’.” This was Yola Letellier, who served as the model for the character Gigi in the novel of the same name by the French writer Colette.

“Yola did not live with us but would visit frequently, bringing us charming gifts,” Hicks wrote.

Peripatetic lives

The sisters’ lives were seemingly peripatetic. As a commander in the Royal Navy, their father was often at sea while the family was formally based on the Mediterranean island of Malta, an important naval base. When naval personnel were ordered to leave Malta in 1935, the sisters were dispatched to a small hotel in Hungary, two hours’ drive east of the capital, Budapest.

They arrived in July, but it was only in November that their mother and their father’s lover arrived together to pick them up. “Apparently, my mother had written down the name of the hotel on a piece of paper then lost it,” Hicks wrote. It was only by retracing their steps from months earlier that the two women found the children.

With the outbreak of the second World War, the sisters were evacuated from Britain in 1940 and sent to New York to live with the socialite Grace Vanderbilt, the wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, at their palatial apartment at 640 Fifth Avenue and 51st Street. By the time the sisters returned home a year later, their British residence – a Palladian mansion called Broadlands, on 6,000 acres in Hampshire – had been partly converted for use as a hospital. Knatchbull enlisted in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Producer husband

With peace returned, she married John Knatchbull, a former aide to her father who went on to produce movies, including A Passage to India, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. He died at 80 in 2005. The wedding, in 1946, was the hot-ticket event of the year. The royal princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were among the bridesmaids.

Knatchbull is survived by six children; her sister, Pamela; and 18 grandchildren. Her oldest son, Norton, has inherited the title Earl Mountbatten of Burma.

For many years Knatchbull was the honorary colonel-in-chief of a military unit called Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. After the killings of 1979, she became a patron of charities for the bereaved. Her sister described her as “the personification of the stiff upper lip”.

In a way, her own loss came full circle in 2012 when Queen Elizabeth met with Martin McGuinness, an IRA commander at the time of the Troubles, who has long denied authorising the bombing of the Shadow V. The queen shook his hand – a contentious gesture for many foes of the IRA.

But Knatchbull said later: “She was absolutely right to do that. I very much approve of anything that will bring about peace.”

– New York Times Service